|From McClure's Magazine/Volume 23, June 1904, pp. 168-177. The story was later included in his collection The Watchers of the Trails|
CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
Too early, while yet the snow was thick and the food scarce, the big black bear had roused himself from his long winter sleep and forsaken his snug den under the roots of the pine tree. The thawing spring world he found an empty place—no rabbits to be captured, no roots to be dug from wet meadows; and his appetite was sorely vexing him. He would have crept back into his hole for another nap; but the air was too stimulatingly warm, too full of promise of life, to suffer him to resume the old, comfortable drowsiness. Moreover, having gone to bed thin the previous December, he had waked up hungry; and hunger is a restless bedfellow. In three days he had had but one meal—a big trout, clawed out half-dead from a rocky eddy below the Falls; and now, as he sniffed the soft, wet air with fiercely eager nostrils, he forgot his customary tolerance of mood and was ready to do battle with anything that walked the wilderness.
It was a little past noon, and the shadows of the tree-tops fell blue on the rapidly shrinking snow. The air was full of faint, trickling noises, and thin tinklings where the snow veiled the slopes of little rocky hollows. Under the snow and under the rotting patches of ice, innumerable small streams were everywhere hurrying to swell the still ice-fettered flood of the river, the Big Fork, whose roomy valley lay about a half-mile eastward through the woods. Every now and then, when a soft gust drew up from the south, it bore with it a heavy roar, a noise as of muffled and tremendous trampling—the voice of the Big Fork Falls thundering out from under their decaying lid of ice. The falls were the only thing which the black bear really feared. Often as he had visited them, to catch wounded fish in the black eddies at their foot, he could never look at their terrific plunge without a certain awed dilation of his eyes, a certain shrinking at his heart. Perhaps by reason of some association of his cubhood, some imminent peril and narrow escape at the age when his senses were most impressionable, in all his five years of life the falls had never become a commonplace to him. And even now, while questing noiselessly and restlessly for food, he rarely failed to pay the tribute of an instinctive, unconscious turn of head whenever that portentous voice came up upon the wind.
Prowling hither and thither among the great ragged trunks, peering and sniffing and listening, the bear suddenly caught the sound of small claws on wood. The sound came apparently from within the trunk of a huge maple, close at hand. Leaning his head to one side, he listened intently, his ears cocked, eager as a child listening to a watch. There was, indeed, something half childish in the attitude of the huge figure, strangely belying the ferocity in his heart. Yes, the sound came, unmistakably, from within the trunk. He nosed the bark warily. There was no opening; and the bark was firm. He stole to the other side of the tree, his head craftily outstretched and reaching around far before him.
The situation was clear to him at once—and his hungry muzzle jammed itself into the entrance to a chipmunk's hole. The maple tree was dead, and partly decayed, up one side of the trunk. All his craft forgotten on the instant, the bear sniffed and snorted and drew loud, fierce breaths, as if he thought to suck the little furry tenant forth by inhalation. The live, warm smell that came from the hole was deliciously tantalizing to his appetite. The hole, however, was barely big enough to admit the tip of his black snout, so he presently gave over his foolish sniffings, and set himself to tear an entrance with his resistless claws. The bark and dead wood flew in showers under his efforts, and it was evident that the chipmunk's little home would speedily lie open to the foe. But the chipmunk, meanwhile, from the crotch of a limb overhead, was looking down in silent indignation. Little Stripe-sides had been wise enough to provide his dwelling with a sort of skylight exit.
Suddenly, in the midst of his task, the bear stopped and lifted his muzzle to the wind. What was that new taint upon the air? It was one almost unknown to him, but one which he instinctively dreaded, though without any reason based directly upon experience of his own. At almost any other time, indeed, he would have taken the first whiff of that ominous man-smell as a signal to efface himself and make off noiselessly down the wind. But just now, his first feeling was wrath at the thought of being hindered from his prospective meal. He would let no one, not even a man, rob him of that chipmunk. Then, as his wrath swelled rapidly, he decided to hunt the man himself. Perhaps, as the bear relishes practically everything edible under the sun except human flesh, he had no motive but a savage impulse to punish the intruder for such an untimely intrusion. However that may be, a red light came into his eyes, and he swung away to meet this unknown trespasser upon his trails.
On that same day, after a breakfast before dawn in order that he might make an early start, a gaunt trapper had set out from the settlement on the return journey to his camp beyond the Big Fork. He had been in to the settlement with a pack of furs, and was now hurrying back as fast as he could, because of the sudden thaw. He was afraid the ice might go out of the river and leave him cut off from his camp—for his canoe was on the other side. As the pelts were beginning to get poor, he had left his rifle at home, and carried no weapon but his knife. He had grown so accustomed to counting all the furry wild folk as his prey that he never thought of them as possible adversaries—unless it might chance to be some such exception as a bull-moose in rutting season. A rifle, therefore, when he was not after skins, seemed to him a useless burden; and he was carrying, moreover, a pack of camp supplies on his broad back. He was tall, lean, leather-faced and long-jawed, with calm, light blue eyes under heavy brows; and he wore a stout, yellow-brown home-spun shirt, squirrel-skin cap, long leggings of deerhide, and oiled cowhide moccasins. He walked rapidly with a long, slouching stride that was almost a lope, his toes pointing straight ahead like an Indian's.
When, suddenly, the bear lurched out into his trail and confronted him, the woodsman was in no way disturbed. The bear paused, swaying in surly fashion about ten paces in front of him, completely blocking the trail. But the woodsman kept right on. The only attention he paid to the big, black stranger was to shout at him authoritatively—"Git out the way, thar!"
To his unbounded astonishment, however, the beast, instead of getting out of the way, ran at him with a snarling growl. The woodsman's calm blue eyes flamed with anger; but the life of the woods teaches one to think quickly, or, rather, to act in advance of one's thoughts. He knew that with no weapon but his knife he was no match for such a foe, so, leaping aside as lightly as a panther, he darted around a tree, regained the trail beyond his assailant, and ran on at his best speed toward the river. He made sure that the bear had acted under a mere spasm of ill-temper and would not take the trouble to follow far.
When, once in a long time, a hunter or trapper gets the worst of it in his contest with the wild kindreds, in the majority of cases it is because he had fancied he knew all about bears. The bear is strong in individuality and delights to set at nought the traditions of his kind. So it happens that every now and then a woodsman pays with his life for failing to recognize that the bear won't always play by rule.
To the trapper's disgusted amazement, this particular bear followed him so vindictively that, before he realized the full extent of his peril he was almost overtaken. He saw that he must deliver up his precious pack, the burden of which was effectively handicapping him in the race for life. When the bear was almost upon him, he flung the bundle away, with angry violence, expecting that it would at once divert the pursuer's attention.
In about ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, perhaps, it would have done so, for it contained, among other things, bacon and sugar, dainties altogether delectable to a bear's palate. But as luck would have it, the bundle so bitterly hurled struck the beast full on the snout, making him grunt with pain and fresh fury. From that moment he was a veritable demon of vengeance. Well enough he knew it was not the bundle, but the man who had thrown it, upon whom he must wipe out the affront. His hunger was all forgotten in red rage.
Fortunate it was now for the tall woodsman that he had lived abstemiously and labored sanely all that winter, and could depend upon both wind and limb. Fortunate, too, that on the open trail, cut years before by the lumbermen of the Big Fork drive, the snow was already almost gone, so that it did not seriously impede his running. He ran almost like a caribou, with enough in reserve to be able to glance back over his shoulder from time to time. But seeing how implacable was the black bulk that pursued, he could not help thinking what would happen, there in the great, wet, shadow-mottled solitudes, if he should chance to trip upon a root, or if his wind should fail him ere he could reach the camp. At this thought, not fear but a certain disgust and impotent resentment swelled his heart; and with a challenging look at the ancient trunks, the familiar forest aisles, the high, branch-fretted blue, bright with spring sunshine, he defied the wilderness, which he had so long loved and ruled, to turn upon him with such an unspeakable betrayal.
The wilderness loves a master; and the challenge was not accepted. No root tripped his feet, nor did his wind fail him; and so he came out, with the bear raging some ten paces behind his heels, upon the banks of the Big Fork. Once across that quarter-mile of sloppy, rotting ice, he knew there was good, clear running to his cabin and his gun. His heart rose, his resentment left him, and he grinned as he gave one more glance over his shoulder.
As he raced down the bank, the trampling of the falls, a mile away, roared up to him on a gust of wind. In spite of himself he could not but notice how treacherous the ice was looking. In spite of himself he noticed it, having no choice but to trust it. The whole surface looked sick, with patches of sodden white and sickly lead-color; and down along the shore it was covered by a lane of shallow, yellowish water. It appeared placid and innocent enough; but the woodsman's practised eye perceived that it might break up, or "go out," at any moment. The bear was at his heels, however, and that particular moment was not the one for indecision. The woodsman dashed knee deep through the margin water, and out upon the free ice; and he heard the bear, reckless of all admonitory signs, splash after him about three seconds later.
On the wide, sun-flooded expanse of ice, with the dark woods beyond and soft blue sky above, the threat of imminent death seemed to the woodsman curiously out of place. Yet there death was, panting savagely at his heels, ready for the first misstep. And there, too, a mile below, was death in another form, roaring heavily from the swollen falls. And hidden under a face of peace, he knew that death lurked all about his feet, liable to rise in mad fury at any instant with the breaking of the ice. As he thought of all this besetting menace, the woodsman's nerves drew themselves to steel. He set his teeth grimly. A light of elation came into his eyes. And he felt himself able to win the contest against whatever odds. As this sense of new vigor and defiance spurred him to a fresh burst of speed, the woodsman took notice that he was just about half-way across the ice. "Good," he muttered, counting the game now more than half won. Then, even as he spoke, a strange, terrifying sound ran all about him. Was it in the air, or beneath the ice? It came from everywhere at once, a straining grumble, ominous as the first growl of an earthquake. The woodsman understood that dreadful voice very well. He wavered for a second, then sprang forward desperately. And the bear pursuing understood also. His rage vanished in a breath. He stumbled, whimpered, cast one frightened glance at the too distant shore behind him, then followed the woodsman's flight—followed now, with no more heed to pursue.
For less than half a minute that straining grumble continued. Then it grew louder, mingled with sharp, ripping crashes; and long, black lanes opened suddenly in every direction. Right before the woodsman's flying feet one opened. He took it with a bound. But even as he sprang the ice went all to pieces. What he sprang to was no longer a solid surface, but a tossing fragment which promptly went down beneath the impact of his descent. Not for nothing, was it, however, that the woodsman had learned to "run the logs" in many a tangled boom and racing "drive." His foot barely touched the treacherous floe ere he leaped again, and yet again; till he had gained, by a path which none but a riverman could ever have dreamed of traversing, an ice-cake broad and firm enough to give him foothold. Beyond this refuge was a space of surging water, foam, and ice-mush, too broad for the essay of any human leap.
The Big Fork from shore to shore was now a tossing, swishing, racing, whirling, and grinding chaos of ice-cakes, churning in an angry flood and hurrying blindly to the falls. In the center of his own floe the woodsman sat down, the better to preserve his balance. He bit off a chew from his plug of "blackjack," and with calm eyes surveyed the doom toward which he was rushing. A mile is a very short distance when it lies above the inevitable. The woodsman saw clearly that there was nothing to be done but chew his "blackjack," and wait on fate. That point settled, he turned his head to see what the bear was doing.
To his surprise, the animal was now a good fifty yards farther up stream, having evidently been delayed by some vagary of the struggling ice. He was now sitting up on his haunches on a floe, and staring silently at the volleying cloud which marked the Falls. The woodsman was aware of a curious fellow-feeling for the great beast which, not five minutes ago, had been raging for his life. To the woodsman, with his long knowledge and understanding of the wild kindreds, that rage and that pursuit now appeared as lying more or less in the course of events, a part of the normal savagery of nature, and no matter of personal vindictiveness. Now that he and his enemy were involved in a common and appalling doom, the enmity was forgotten. "Got cl'ar grit, too!" he murmured to himself, as he took note of the quiet way the bear was eyeing the Falls.
And now it seemed to him that the trampling roar grew louder every second, drowning into dumbness the crashing and grinding of the ice; and the volleying mist-clouds seemed to race up-stream to meet him. Then, with a sickening jump and turn of his heart, a hope came and shook him out of his stoicism. He saw that his ice-cake was sailing straight for a little rocky islet just above the fall. Two minutes more would decide his fate—at least for the time. He did not trouble to think what he would do on the island, if he got there. He rose cautiously and crouched, every sinew tense to renew the battle for life.
Another minute fled away, and the island was close ahead, wrapped in the roar and the mist-volleys. A cross-current, seizing the racing ice-cake, dragged it aside—and the man clenched his fists in a fury of disappointment as he saw that he would miss the refuge after all. He made ready to plunge in and at least die battling, when fate took yet another whim, and a whirling mass of logs and ice, colliding with the floe, forced it back to its original course. Another moment and it grounded violently, breaking into four pieces, which rolled off on either side toward the abyss. And the woodsman, splashing into the turbulent shallows, made good his hold upon a rock and dragged himself ashore.
Fairly landed, he shook himself, spat coolly into the flood, and turned to see what was happening to his fellow in distress. To the roaring vortex just below him—so close that it seemed as if it might at any moment drag down the little island and engulf it—he paid no heed whatever, but turned his back contemptuously upon the tumult and the mists. His late enemy, alive, strong, splendid, and speeding to a hideous destruction, was of the keener interest to his wilderness spirit.
The bear was now about twenty paces above the island; but caught by an inexorable current, he was nearly that distance beyond it. With a distinct regret, a pang of sympathy, the man saw that there was no chance of his adversary's escape. But the bear, like himself, seeing a refuge so near, was not of the temper to give up without a struggle. Suddenly, like a gigantic spring uncoiling, he launched himself forth with a violence that completely up-ended his ice-cake, and carried him over a space of churned torrent to the edge of another floe. Gripping this with his mighty forearms till he pulled it half under, he succeeded in clawing out upon it. Scrambling across, he launched himself again desperately, sank almost out of sight, rose and began swimming, with all the energy of courage and despair combined.
But already he was opposite the head of the island. Could he make it? The man's own muscles strained and heaved in unconscious sympathy with that struggle. The bear was a gallant swimmer, and for a moment it looked as if there might be the ghost of a chance for him. But no; the torrent had too deadly a grip upon his long-furred bulk. He would just miss that last safe ledge!
In his eagerness, and without any conscious thought of what he was doing, the man stepped down into the water knee-deep, bracing himself, and clinging with his left hand to a tough projecting root. Closer came the bear, beating down the splintered refuse that obstructed him, his long, black body laboring dauntlessly. Closer he came—but not quite close enough to get his strong paws on the rock. A foot more would have done it—but that paltry foot he was unable to make good.
The man could not stand it. It was quite too fine a beast to be dragged over the falls before his eyes, if he could help it. Reaching out swiftly with his right hand, he caught the swimmer by the long fur of his neck, and heaved with all his strength.
For a moment he wondered if he could hold on. The great current drew and sucked, almost irresistibly. But his grip was of steel, his muscles sound and tense. For a moment or two the situation hung in doubt. Then the swimmer, stroking desperately, began to gain. A moment more and that narrow, deadly foot of space was covered. The animal got first one paw upon the rocks, then the other. With prompt discretion, the woodsman dropped his hold and stepped back to the top of the island, suddenly grown doubtful of his own wisdom.
Drawing himself just clear of the torrent, the bear crouched, panting, for several minutes, exhausted from the tremendous struggle; and the man, on the top of the rock, waited with his hand upon his knife hilt to see what would come of his reckless act. In reality, however, he did not look for trouble, knowing intuitively as he did the natures of the wild kindreds. He was merely holding himself on guard against the unexpected. But he soon saw that his caution was unnecessary. Recovering breath, the bear clambered around the very edge of the rocks to the farther side of the island, as far as possible from his rescuer. There he seated himself upon his haunches, and devoted himself to gazing down, as if fascinated, at the cauldron from which he had been snatched.
During the next half-hour the woodsman began to think. For the present, he knew that the bear was quite inoffensive, being both grateful and overawed. But there was no food on the island for either, except the other. So the fight was bound to be renewed at last. And after that, whoever might be the victor, what remained for him? From that island, on the lip of the fall and walled about with wild rapids, there could be no escape. The situation was not satisfactory from any point of view. But that it was clear against his principles to knuckle down, under any conditions, to beast or man or fate, the woodsman might have permitted himself to wish that, after all, his ice-cake had missed the island. As it was, however, he took another bite from his plug of "blackjack" and set himself to whittling a stick.
With a backwoodsman's skill in the art of whittling, he had made good progress toward the shaping of a toy hand-sled, when, looking up from his task, he saw something that mightily changed the face of affairs. He threw away the half-shaped toy, thrust the knife back into his belt, and rose to his feet. After a long, sagacious survey of the flood, he drew his knife again and proceeded to cut himself a stout staff, a sort of alpenstock. He saw that an ice-jam was forming just above the falls.
The falls of the Big Fork lie at a sharp elbow of the river, and cross the channel on a slant. Immediately above them the river shoals sharply, and though at ordinary seasons there is only one island visible, at times of low water huge rocks appear all along the brink. It chanced, at this particular time, that after the first run of the ice had passed there came a second run that was mixed with logs. This ice, moreover, was less rotten than that which had formed near the falls, and it came down in larger cakes. When some of these big cakes, cemented with logs, grounded on the head of the island, the nucleus of a jam was promptly formed. At the same time some logs, deeply frozen into another floe, caught and hung on one of the unseen mid-stream ledges. An accumulation gathered in the crook of the elbow, over on the further shore; and then, as if by magic, the rush stopped, the flood ran almost clear from the lip of the falls, and the river was closed from bank to bank.
The woodsman sat quietly watching, as if it were a mere idle spectacle, instead of the very bridge of life, that was forming before his eyes. Little by little the structure welded itself, the masses of drift surging against the barrier, piling up and diving under, till it was compacted and knit to the very bottom—and the roar of the falls dwindled with the diminishing of the stream. This was the moment for which the man was waiting. Now, if ever, the jam was solid, and might hold so until he gained the further shore. But beyond this moment every second of delay only served to gather the forces that were straining to break the obstruction. He knew that in a very few minutes the rising weight of the flood must either sweep all before it or flow roaring over the top of the jam in a new cataract that would sweep the island bare. He sprang to his feet, grasped his stick, and scanned the tumbled, precarious surface, choosing his path. Then he turned and looked at the bear, wondering if that animal's woodcraft were subtler than his own to distinguish when the jam was secure. He found that the bear was eyeing him anxiously, and not looking at the ice at all; so he chuckled, told himself that if he didn't know more than a bear he'd no business in the woods, and stepped resolutely forth upon the treacherous pack. Before he had gone ten paces the bear jumped up with a whimper, and followed hastily, plainly conceding that the man knew more than he.
In the strange sudden quiet, the shrunken falls clamouring thinly and the broken ice swishing against the upper side of the jam, the man picked his way across the slippery, chaotic surface, expecting every moment that it would crumble with a roar from under his feet. About ten or a dozen yards behind him came the bear, stepping hurriedly, and trembling as he looked down at the diminished cataract. The miracle of the vanishing falls daunted his spirit most effectively, and he seemed to think that the whole mysterious phenomenon was of the man's creating. When the two reached shore, the flood was already boiling far up the bank. Without so much as a thank you, the bear scurried past his rescuer, and made off through the timber like a scared cat. The man looked after him with a slow smile, then turned and scanned the perilous path he had just traversed. As he did so, the jam seemed to melt away in mid-channel. Then a terrific, rending roar tortured the air. The mass of logs and ice, and all the incalculable weight of imprisoned waters hurled themselves together over the brink with a stupefying crash, and throbbing volumes of spray leaped skyward. The woodsman's lean face never changed a muscle, but presently, giving a hitch to his breeches under the belt, he muttered thoughtfully:
"Blame good thing we come away when we did!"
Then, turning on his larriganed heels, he strode up the trail till the great woods closed about him and the raving thunders gradually died into quiet.